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Schools & Program Visits - June, 2002 Issue #94 

Gold Bar, Washington
David Pitkin, Owner/Manger


Visit on May 18, 2002
By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

Very few Independent Educational Consultants seem to be aware of Skyland Ranch. I think they are overlooking a unique resource for young men over the age of 18 who need a safe place to continue their recovery. The reason given by founder/owner David Pitkin for not aggressively contacting consultants is that he is so busy working with recovery, both with the young men at the ranch, as well as his own recovery path, that he is unable to attend IECA meetings to market his program. Besides, I couldn’t imagine Dave Pitkin ever abandoning his ranch clothing to don a suit, or anything that even vaguely resembles formal business wear. He has become very much a down home backwoods person.

David Pitkin, who used to be a San Diego Juvenile judge, founded Skyland Ranch when realized there wasn't any decent place to send the kids who appeared before his Court. In recovery himself, he created this ranch recovery program north of Seattle Washington both as a way to help kids, as well as to benefit his own healing by changing careers.

Originally the ranch was for teens, but the State of Washington used the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children as leverage to encourage Pitkin to take State placed kids [discussed in “The Interstate Compact And You,” by Dave Pitkin, in Woodbury Reports, December 1994, #31]. He declined, but when the State of Washington’s Health and Welfare Agency overturned a Superior Court decision on a subsequent licensing dispute, Pitkin converted the program to serve young men over the age of 18. As legal adults, they were not subject to the department's authority [“What Happened at Skyland Ranch,” Woodbury Reports, Feb. ’96 #38]. The loss of a resource for teens became a gain for young adult males.

Skyland Ranch has a dual purpose. Not only does it provide a safe home for young men to work on their recovery, but it also attracts a sizable number of people who either rent horses and guides for wilderness trips, attend the Native American plays in the "Village" during the summer season, or participate in a sweat lodge. According to Pitkin, this interaction between residents and the public is an excellent way for the young men to develop their much needed social skills, and it provides additional funding that helps him keep the tuition for the young men very low; actually, below cost.

At first glance, the program appears very “laid back”. Typical of western ranches in the wilderness, you won’t exactly find manicured lawns and a ranch house that would qualify for Sunset Magazine or Southern Living. There were six young men living there when I visited, with a capacity of 12. They ranged in age up to their mid- thirties, and had all arrived at the realization that drugs, including alcohol, were controlling them and they needed help. One young man I talked to had been through six short-term drug rehab programs, each one resulting only in a short period of recovery. He now finally was trying Skyland Ranch’s longer-term program.

Each of the residents had responsibilities around the ranch, and to a large extent, they had as much control over what they did as if they were totally on their own. The difference from a typical young bachelor home is the culture of the ranch, which in many ways is very structured and powerful, but in a subtle way that is not obvious. Each resident strongly influences the others. Any time a resident begins to revert to his old way of thinking, he has to contend with strong forces that influence him toward healthy recovery: the other residents, and the opportunities at the ranch. Each resident has to care for his own horse, serve as a host to the public, and attend AA/NA meetings, as well as Native American activities that include the liberal use of sweat lodges.

The place has a very strong spiritual base, which is difficult to measure according to the typical ways of measuring a program, but I could feel it through the sense of comfort, well-being and safety I experienced while relaxing with the residents. They follow the Native American Lakota tradition in many of their activities, which is the avenue through which the spiritual is brought into the program. For example, I watched one of the residents approach Dave Pitkin to tell him he was feeling restless, then handed Dave a feather. Dave explained this symbolism was a request for a Sweat Lodge the next day, which includes singing, meditations and talk designed for spiritual purification, along with the physical purification that comes from the steam. What had happened was that the resident was feeling his resolve was weakening, and this was his way of asking Dave to help him to reconnect with the strength to maintain his progress towards recovery. Shortly afterwards, I saw that resident splitting wood from a large pile of tree rounds for some resolve-building physical activity. I had to leave early the next day, so unfortunately couldn’t participate in the requested sweat lodge.

Another important aspect of the Skyland Ranch experience is the Native American plays that are a regular part of their summer activities. A number of teepees are set up in what they call the “Village,” where visitors stay when they come to experience the plays. Some of the ranch residents are able to participate by playing a part in the play. Great effort is made to make these plays authentic, and participation by the residents is an important part of their experience.

 custom-designed Totem Pole sits at the entrance to the “Village” part of the property. Each creature in the totem pole is representative of an important person or aspect of the Ranch. Dave explained that in the center part of the pole, the animals were ones that were frequently used in traditional Native American Pacific Northwest totem poles, but the top and bottom ones are unique to Skyland Ranch. At the top is a humming bird, which Dave Pitkin claims is his personal totem symbolizing love. At the bottom is a horse, which symbolizes that horses are the foundation of the Skyland Ranch community. He points out that this totem pole is used for its traditional purpose of symbolizing and telling the story of the community; thus it is much more than just decoration.

When ready, each resident is expected to find a job in the nearby community. Eventually they all do, which is another part of the “normal” life that each resident experiences while living in a safe community designed to physically and spiritually support his move toward recovery. Of course, the program is geared to help the resident progress with his academics, either by finishing high school or getting started with college. They use tutors, sometimes working with the home school district. They are also set up for distance education resources, depending on what makes the most sense for the individual resident.

This program is good for the young man who has completed a drug rehab program but still needs strong support system to maintain recovery, and would be responsive to a rural wilderness environment. In addition to relative isolation from the temptations of mainstream society, the chief elements of Skyland Ranch are relationships with horses, ranch living and responsibilities, wilderness experiences, and Native American approaches to encourage spiritual healing. Typical stays are nine months, but the program is open-ended, based on how much of the supportive environment a young man needs to get ready for success in “normal” society.

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